June 19, 2013
The middle class rebellion
On Thursday night, the BBC called me from Broadcasting House in London astonished by scenes of mass demonstrations in Buenos Aires and other cities throughout Argentina.
The presenter was surprised by the magnitude and extent of the crowds. She was also intrigued by what seemed to be “a festive atmosphere” and asked me to explain what was going on.
I had just arrived home after walking down Avenida Callao, returning from a speaking engagement in the Casa de Mendoza. I had not taken part in the protest, but during my 12-block walk I blended in. The atmosphere certainly seemed festive. People were sitting out at sidewalk cafés on Callao and adjacent streets eating, sipping drinks and enjoying the antics of the crowds gathered at street crossings.
I told the BBC that what we were watching streaming live on the Internet was a rebellion of Argentina’s middle class. The protesters gently rattled pots and pans, held up homemade signs and waved Argentine flags. There was no aggression. It was a genteel affair.
I later learned that there were two incidents of violence when reporters for the pro-government C5N, a television channel, and the TV programme Duro de Domar were roughed up. But the aggressors were roundly condemned.
But the mood was not really “festive.” The Argentine middle class is not happy with the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Indeed, there is underlying anger that so much has gone wrong with a government that did so much that was right after the epic economic collapse and the breakdown of democracy in 2001.
My interpretation of both the great marches of the middle class, the first on September 13, which was largely spontaneous, and the second on what is being called 8N, which was at least twice the size, numbering around 250,000, according to some estimates, is that both were about One Big Thing and scores of Littler Things. The Big Thing is Democracy. The littler things are lack of security, inflation, state intervention, corruption, limits on individual rights, threats to press freedom and judicial independence, to name only a few of the grievances that have aroused more people to take to the streets than I can remember in half a century covering Argentina.
The point about both these marches, which have really been gatherings of mostly like-minded people, is that they could prove to be a historic turning point in the civic development of Argentina. As readers of this column must have realized, I have been concerned from the moment that I was able to resume my life in Argentina that our hard-won democracy was in danger of being whittled away by an increasingly authoritarian administration.
I was haunted by a metaphor that I have not mentioned in print before.
This is not meant to be taken too seriously, but I am not the only person who has wondered whether those of us who believe in democracy are like frogs basking in a tank of warm water, unaware that the temperature is imperceptibly rising.
As my wife and I are unable to spend more than five months in Argentina each year we are in an advantageous position. We can hop out of the tank when we leave in November. When we return in June we can test the temperature before we hop back in. We will keep you informed on our reading of the temperature.
For those who do not like this metaphor, let me say that it is far less disturbing than my first thought, which was that we might be lobsters. In that case, once in the pot, you’ve had it.
Among our friends, only a few worried about being democratic frogs in a country where the authoritarian temperature was rising. So I worried that people would not react in time to save Argentine democracy. The two urbane and genteel demonstrations that have now taken place have strengthened my conviction that democracy is here to stay.
That is because the people who gathered throughout Argentina — the Federal Capital, La Plata, Córdoba, Corrientes, General Roca, Mendoza, Río Negro, Rosario, Salta, Tucumán, even Bariloche and other small towns — made an important statement: the people are concerned about individual liberties, human rights in fact.
The protests went global. The Herald reported that there were demonstrations by Argentines living abroad outside embassies and consulates in Australia, Germany (Berlin, Frankfurt, Bonn, Hamburg); Austria; Bolivia, Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte); Canada (Toronto, Montreal); Chile (Santiago, Valparaíso); China; Colombia; Costa Rica; England; France; Israel (Tel Aviv, Hertzlia Pituah, Migdal Haemek); Italy (Rome, Milan, Padova); Japan, Mexico; Norway; Panama; Paraguay; Peru; Spain (Barcelona, Madrid, Málaga, Palma de Mallorca, Valencia); South Africa; Sweden; Switzerland; Netherlands (Hague, Amsterdam); Uruguay (Montevideo, Punta del Este, Maldonado, Colonia); United States (Washington DC, Miami, New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston); Venezuela. Página/12 added Azerbaijan and the Canary Islands to this list.
The government has been given a multitudinous wake up call. Reality is knocking on the door of the Casa Rosada.
Even Página/12, which has become the Official Gazette, has realized that something is up. Instead of jeering at the marchers, as they did after S13, their writers did some serious analysis.
Horacio González, the most discerning member of the Carta Abierta group of intellectuals, noted: “They weren’t few. They were many. And many of the words that they said were right words.” Horacio Verbitsky, under the heading “Voices from the Street,” wrote that the demonstration was “evidence that democracy is solid.” He concluded by suggesting that Argentina may now be closer to the political system that “(Néstor) Kirchner imagined ‘a centre-left force opposed by the centre-right.’”
Now is the time for the President to polish her democratic credentials by stating that she will not seek re-election and will not support legislation proposing an amendment or reform of the Constitution.
That would allow people from the centre-left and the centre-right to bond in support of democracy, against the extremists that have done so much harm to Argentina over the past eight or nine decades.
The worldwide coverage of the protests on Thursday by the BBC and other media put Argentina on a global alert list. A gesture from Cristina would tell the world that democracy is alive and well.
And it would be an enormous relief to my metaphorical frogs who would no longer have to keep checking the temperature of the water in the tank.